Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an online-first feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues.
The forum on Unfinished Business will appear in print in the Winter 2017 issue of Signs. Unfinished Business was published in 2015 by Random House.
Anne-Marie Slaughter's Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family
Why Are We Now Talking about
The Unfinished Business of
Race and Gender at Work
Kimberly Freeman Brown
Strengthening the Case for Policies to
The Feminist Business
Only the State, Not Benevolent Employers, Can Ensure Work-Family Balance
Having It All Is Not a Feminist Theory of Change
Tressie McMillan Cottom
Rethinking the Care Economy
Caring Without Question
Look How Far We've Come (Not)
Joan C. Williams
Why Are We Now Talking about “Unfinished Business”?
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book, Unfinished Business, lays out how our workplace culture discriminates against parents and other caregivers, most of whom are still overwhelmingly women. This discrimination not only prevents women from getting ahead but also discourages men from taking a more active role in family responsibilities. Slaughter sees the issue as squarely a structural one. An increasing number of women and men are left frazzled and stressed, trying to address conflicts between their family and a career characterized by long hours and little flexibility.
The book hit a nerve because it was personal and compelling while describing a common experience. Slaughter was not known as an expert on labor market or family issues. Her academic and policy-oriented career had been in foreign policy, putting together solutions to problems of international law. Yet it was her own experiences that led her to the frustrations she shares in book—frustrations that are all-too-familiar to families all across the United States.
Slaughter first laid out her story in a cover article for The Atlantic magazine released in the summer of 2012. The article came out just after she stepped down from a two-year stint as director of policy planning in Secretary Hillary Clinton’s State Department, where she had been the first woman to hold the post. She titled her piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and in it she said, “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”
Slaughter is now considered a serious thinker around the issue of work-life conflict not because she spent her academic career studying it but because she spent her career living it. She tells her own tales of conflicts between the dictates of her job and her family’s need—including unpredictable and long hours—conflicts shared by families up and down the income ladder. And that's why she's touched a nerve.
To her credit, Slaughter uses her personal experience to try to galvanize policymakers. She wants us to implement policies that she and millions of other families need in order to address conflicts between workplace norms and needs and family needs. And, here, her book is indeed timely. It emerged after a decade of success at the state and local level on just these kinds of solutions.
Over the past decade, more than two dozen states and localities have passed laws giving workers the right to earn paid sick days. Four states have passed laws for paid parental leave. One state, Vermont, and one city, San Francisco have passed laws that give workers the right to ask their employer for a schedule that works for them and their family. Many communities have put in place new programs to address the need for care for children and the elderly. And one state and many localities have made it illegal to discriminate against those with care responsibilities.
We now see this debate playing a large role in the 2016 presidential elections, in no small part due to Slaughter and Secretary Clinton’s commitment to finding solutions. Presidential candidates—not only Clinton, but also Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Marco Rubio—are debating the nuts and bolts of how we should develop a national paid family and medical leave program, a key work-life policy.
Slaughter tells a compelling story about how one powerful woman struggled with the everyday challenges, challenges that every family has to find a solution to in its own way. She gives those stories voice and credibility. Unfinished Business doesn’t capture our imaginations so much as reflect our day-to-day reality and point to policies that would improve our lives.
Slaughter uses her personal experience to try to galvanize policymakers.
Heather Boushey is Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her research focuses on economic inequality and public policy, specifically employment, social policy, and family economic well-being. She is the author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict (Harvard University Press, 2016).
The New York Times has called Boushey one of the “most vibrant voices in the field,” and she testifies often before Congress on economic policy issues. Her research has been published in academic journals; she writes regularly for popular media, including The New York Times’ “Room for Debate,” The Atlantic, and Democracy; and she makes frequent television appearances on Bloomberg, MSNBC, CNBC, and PBS. Boushey previously served as an economist for the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and the Economic Policy Institute, and also sits on the board of the Opportunity Institute. She received her PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research and her BA from Hampshire College.
The Unfinished Business of Race and Gender at Work
Kimberly Freeman Brown
Presumably, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business was written for women like me. I’ve spent the better part of my 20+-year professional career moving up the leadership chain within a number of social- and economic-justice-oriented national advocacy and political organizations in Washington, DC. I imagine much of my professional history to be similar to many of the women leaders who see themselves—and the life and work decisions ahead of or behind them—within the pages of Unfinished Business.
And yet for all of this commonality, as one of the few African American women (or the only African American woman) in many of the leadership spaces I’ve found myself in, I have always felt separate from those who I presume to be Slaughter’s primary audience. The inextricable link between gender and race—and its impact on my work experience and the career trajectories of other women who look like me—is at the heart of my understanding of the unfinished business for women in the workplace.
Despite having the highest rate of labor participation among all women, black women are grossly underrepresented in leadership positions in the US workforce. According to 2015 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 52 percent of management, professional, and related positions. And yet African American and Latina women each occupy only 9 percent of these jobs. Even in instances where education and skills are held constant, black women and other women of color are held back. Forget about leaning in. Many African American and other women of color are still concerned about getting in, staying in, having influence commensurate with our expertise, and earning what our white women counterparts make—let alone closing the wage gap with white men.
I read Unfinished Business with these statistical realities on my mind, coupled with the painful personal stories of microaggressions and flagrant discrimination endured by women of color that I’ve heard over the years. With every turn of the page, I found myself asking whether the mantras Slaughter challenges as the half-truths professional women hold about ourselves, about the men in our lives and the workplace, were the ones that predominantly shaped my career choices—and more importantly, the career choices that were made for me. I appreciate and wholeheartedly agree with the call for structural change in the workplace, especially as it relates to building an infrastructure for care, an issue of great concern for working women of color. And yet, there are other structural reforms directed at dismantling the double jeopardy of racism and sexism that are of tremendous consequence to employment opportunities and career prospects for women of color.
Slaughter talks at length about motherhood and coparenting in Unfinished Business. How might the fact that black women are three times more likely than white women to be single heads of household inform strategies for upward mobility? Think of the impact of police brutality and mass incarceration on a black working woman’s ability to have a coparent to help out as she pursues her career. Ponder how the disproportionate criminalization of black kids in comparison to their white counterparts impacts their working moms. Imagine the emotional and financial resources it takes to navigate bail, legal fees, and court appearances, to pay for collect calls and other expenses associated with mothering an imprisoned child. Or consider that Sandra Bland’s fateful encounter with a police officer came just days before she was to start her new job in a new city far away from family and friends.
One of my favorite lines from Unfinished Business is this one: “Telling whole truths and seeing the whole picture is the right place to start” (36). Broadening our analysis of the unfinished business of women in the workplace to include a deep, hard look at the race and gender dimensions of barriers to women’s advancement at work is a part of the whole truth that all women must embrace. Doing so is the path to progress for all of us—both inside the workplace and beyond it.
Forget about leaning in. Many African American and other women of color are still concerned about getting in, staying in, having influence commensurate with our expertise, and earning what our white women counterparts make.
Kimberly Freeman Brown is the author of “And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power and Promise” and the former executive director of American Rights at Work, a national labor policy organization that merged with Jobs with Justice in 2012. The same year she launched KFB Consulting, LLC, a boutique organizational development firm that supports some of the foremost national and international nonprofit advocacy and political organizations. Clients have utilized her expertise on equity and inclusion and leadership development initiatives, and her services as an executive coach. As an outspoken advocate for workers’ rights and race and gender equity, Kimberly has been quoted and published commentaries in publications including The New York Times, Politico, and the Nation; and on the websites of NBC News, Ebony, and Buzzfeed. She has also appeared on Fox Business, TV One’s News One, and PBS’s To the Contrary.
Strengthening the Case for Policies to Support Caregiving
Women have made impressive gains in the past forty-five years. But progress toward family-friendly social policies has been exceptionally slow. In 1971, Congress actually passed a comprehensive childcare bill only to have Richard Nixon veto it after concerted lobbying by antifeminists and right-wingers. It took until 1993 just to get the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gave workers in large companies up to twelve weeks of unpaid job-protected leave. Yet nearly half of American workers are ineligible for this leave, and many of those eligible fail to take the full period because they can’t afford it. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than twelve weeks of paid leave to new mothers.
Demands for better work-family policies have been growing. In February 2016, the Pentagon, which already runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country, announced that women in the military will get 12 weeks paid maternity leave. New York State and the District of Columbia may soon join California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, along with more than a dozen cities, in mandating some form of paid family leave.
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business did not create this momentum. In fact, the article on which the book was based generated considerable criticism for focusing on issues facing elite white women and neglecting the caregiving dilemmas of men, along with the distinctive work-life challenges facing minorities and low-income workers.
But since then Slaughter has mined the work of pioneering work-life scholar-activists such as Ellen Bravo, Heather Boushey, and Joan Williams and has met with groups such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is spearheading a movement to expand access to caregiving while providing caregivers with a living wage. Unfinished Business now provides an excellent summary of the case for work-life policies for all workers, and the attention it is attracting (the original article got almost 3 million views) will undoubtedly win new converts.
Slaughter correctly notes that it is important for feminists to combat the widespread impression that work-life policies are just a woman’s issue. More than 20 percent of Americans, single as well as married, are caring for aging parents, and men now report levels of work-family conflict as high as women. Men who take time off for caregiving face similar penalties as women in future pay, promotions, and discriminatory treatment on the job. In fact, it appears that a significant amount of the gender pay gap stems not from discrimination against women per se but from discrimination against caregivers. Childless women now earn 96 percent of what men with comparable experience, hours, and jobs make.
Still, women are far more likely than men to take time off for caregiving, and they pay accumulating penalties for that over time. For reasons of self-interest as well as justice, feminists should give paid paternity leave equal priority with paid maternity leave, supporting affirmative action policies to get men better represented in the home. This is a question of equity, comparable to the battles we waged to get more women into the workforce.
This is one of the next frontiers in the fight for gender equity. After Quebec increased parental leave benefits and established a “use it or lose it” five-week quota for fathers in 2006, men’s takeup rates increased by 250 percent. By 2010, 80 percent of eligible men were using the leave, and the duration of their leaves had increased by 150 percent. Even after their leaves ended, these fathers kept doing more cooking, shopping, and childcare, while their female partners showed more consistent commitment to paid work.
Studies in Western Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, also show that men who take longer parental leaves remain more heavily involved with their children years afterward. And they are less likely to channel their daughters into traditional gender roles. In Norway, girls born after paternity leave reform were assigned fewer household chores as teenagers than their counterparts born just before it -- even though their fathers had returned to work years earlier.
Slaughter presents a persuasive, well-researched case for building a new infrastructure of care in the United States. But in trying to reach a broader audience, she sometimes skips over the more controversial measures required to make sure such reforms are not confined to the highly skilled, elite workers whom employers are already courting with work-life perks. She suggests, for example, that we can permit competing approaches, accommodating those who look to market-based solutions along with those who advocate government programs.
This strikes me as unrealistic. Some private-public partnerships may work well, but we should not shrink from pointing out that the only large-scale success in making work-life policies available to American workers of every economic, racial, and ethnic background has been that run by the military -- the biggest and best-funded arm of the government. When it comes to integrating work and family life, maybe a “nanny state” wouldn’t be so bad for the rest of us either.
A significant amount of the gender pay gap stems not from discrimination against women per se but from discrimination against caregivers.
Stephanie Coontz teaches History and Family Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. She has authored seven books on marriage and family life, most recently a revised edition of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic, 2016). Other books include A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Down of the 1960s (Basic, 2011), and Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Viking, 2005), cited in the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.
The Feminist Business
When the suit sitting next to me on an airplane saw me reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business (the subtitle, Women, Men, Work, Family, is not so easy to see), he cheerfully asked me what line of business I was in. When I said, “I’m in the feminist business,” he did a double take. “Yes,” I added, “and it’s expanding like mad.”
Fortunately he did not ask me about its profit margins.
Pondering the book’s title in the aftermath of this brief exchange, I registered the hidden pun. This is largely a book about busyness—tyrannical over-busyness. In this it succeeds as a thoughtful and therapeutic treatment.
Slaughter challenges the “women can do it all” norm that gives women so little permission to disappoint anyone’s expectations. She also sharply deplores the antifamily pressures of the modern workplace and the inadequacies of our public care infrastructure.
In some ways, she reverses Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (subtitled Women, Work, and the Will to Lead) by arguing that women need to lead men, as well as themselves, away from psychological subordination to paid employment. Lean in to your family, your friends, and your community, Slaughter urges. Lean in to make political change.
Unlike Sandberg, Slaughter almost manages to transform her privileged standpoint (as an academic and political superstar rather than an entrepreneur) into a political asset rather than a liability. After all, if a woman who can afford a full-time housekeeper still needs to take time out from the job of her dreams, the rest of us should not succumb to feelings of inadequacy when we do the same.
Unfortunately, her book, despite its attentiveness to economic differences among women, doesn’t quite preempt the “privilege” critique. In its cheerful exhortation to everyone to fight for changes that would, in principle, benefit everyone, it glosses over larger issues of income inequality.
Women in the top tier of the earnings distribution have much better access to family-friendly policies in their workplace than others do. They can also purchase substitutes for their domestic labor time—from live-in nannies to gourmet take-out meals to expensive private coaches and therapists.
As a result, they are not as eager as they might be to pay higher taxes to help finance the public policies Slaughter advocates. And they don’t stand to benefit much from proposed increases in the federal minimum wage that would dramatically improve family life for women in households with earnings below the median.
I don’t intend to level guilt or blame but rather to highlight intersectional dynamics in which interests based on class, race/ethnicity, and citizenship as well as gender influence women’s priorities—and their votes.
Here the feminist zeitgeist meets the current candidates for the Democratic nomination for president and threatens to go up in smoke. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book channels the best of Hillary Clinton’s political agenda. It’s smart. It’s enlightened. It’s progressive. But it is also…incomplete.
What about the increased inequality of earnings that harshly affects most working women and their families? How do family policies fit into a larger vision of an expanded public sector? Whose taxes should be raised to finance such policies?
Bernie Sanders’s willingness to offer more decisive and principled answers to these big questions has diminished Hillary Clinton’s glow. I wonder how many readers of Unfinished Business will Feel the Bern.
Interests based on class, race/ethnicity, and citizenship as well as gender influence women’s priorities—and their votes.
Nancy Folbre is Director of the Program on Gender and Care Work at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Senior Fellow of the Levy Institute at Bard College. Her research explores the interface between political economy and feminist theory, with a particular emphasis on the value of unpaid care work. She maintains Care Talk, a blog on these topics.
Only the State, Not Benevolent Employers, Can Ensure Work-Family Balance
America is experiencing a feminist renaissance, for which the goddess be praised. Too often, however, a central item goes missing from today’s feminist agenda: women’s economic advancement. The gender pay gap has barely budged since the early 2000s, and women’s labor force participation is on the decline. Yet in recent decades, the workplace policies that are key to reversing these alarming trends—and indeed, to ending the oppression of women—have gotten short shrift, even from feminists.
This marginalization of women’s economic issues explains why I am delighted that Anne-Marie Slaughter decided to write Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which in many ways is an unusually humane, honest, and perceptive book. Slaughter paints empathetic portraits of women and men who struggle to balance work and family while helpfully debunking “the lovely illusion that we can control our lives” (25). She rightly emphasizes two critical themes.
The first is that it’s the workplace that needs to change, not women. Rather than blaming women’s workplace inequality on their alleged failure to “lean in,” Slaughter launches a systemic critique of how work is organized and how care is distributed. As she points out, US workplaces are based on an antiquated model that assumes households with full-time caregivers. Policies that are standard in other economically advanced countries—paid family and sick leave, universal child care, and more—are practically nonexistent here. Many workplaces suffer from a culture of overwork, and many employers prioritize their own control over employee performance. If women are to advance, and if our society wishes to promote family well-being and individual flourishing, all that has to change. Slaughter argues these points with forcefulness and clarity.
Slaughter’s second major theme is that work-family balance is a care problem rather than a women’s problem. Single parents and two-career couples need more help than ever to care for children and elderly or disabled family members, yet quality care is expensive and difficult to access. A related problem is that care work is grossly undervalued and care workers are shockingly underpaid. Unfortunately, Slaughter’s discussion of the care crisis is marred by her sometimes superficial treatment of the subject.
Slaughter repeatedly emphasizes that care work is undervalued but does not inquire deeply into the reasons for this. One answer is proposed by feminist economists, including Nancy Folbre, who characterizes children as public goods, in that they produce benefits from which it is impossible to exclude those who don’t pay for them. For example, a well-cared-for child is likely to be a productive member of society, which benefits everyone. That nonexcludable quality suggests that childcare will be poorly compensated and underprovided in the market, as (mostly) mothers bear the cost of raising children while society free rides off their caring labor.
The implication of this theory is that markets are a less-than-ideal vehicle for providing care, and therefore the state needs to step in as a care provider. This is why Slaughter’s suggestion that businesses and “competition” can help solve the care crisis seems wrong-headed. Where care is concerned, markets have already failed us, for powerful structural reasons. Government is the only institution that can ensure proper care for all.
This gets to the biggest weakness of Unfinished Business: Slaughter’s fuzziness about solutions. She praises employers who voluntarily offer flexibility and recommends that employees with work-life balance issues ask their bosses for accommodations. But these are individual solutions to a collective problem, available only to a privileged subset of workers and vulnerable to being yanked away on a whim. The number of workplaces that offer family-friendly benefits declined significantly after the Great Recession.
Since the workplace is a site of political struggle, it follows that the remedies for work-family imbalance are political as well: universal child care, a living wage, paid family leave, strong enforcement of overtime laws, a European-style policy mandating maximum work hours, and more. These are not wild utopian schemes; they exist in the real world, most prominently in the Nordic social democracies. But disappointingly, Slaughter doesn’t examine other countries’ work and family programs. And though she supports proworker policies, she fails to grapple with the profound resistance that employers and the contemporary GOP have shown toward them.
Given this extraordinary intransigence, workers desiring change have deployed the most potent weapon in their arsenal: mass mobilization. Slaughter shows little interest in such actions (she never so much as mentions labor unions). Yet in recent years, state and local campaigns for paid family and sick leave, universal pre-K, domestic workers’ rights, and a $15 minimum wage have scored impressive victories. These successes are cheering, but they are incommensurate to the scale of the problem. How can activists create a national movement for twenty-first-century work and family policies, equivalent in power to the labor movement in the ’30s or the civil rights movement in the ’60s? This is a daunting project, but one way to move it forward is to advance the national conversation on these issues. Happily, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book has done just that. But her intervention would have been even more helpful if she had focused less on piecemeal private sector fixes and more on the need for systemic political change.
Where care is concerned, markets have already failed us, for powerful structural reasons.
Kathleen Geier is a freelance journalist who writes about feminism, economics, labor, and politics. She has contributed to The Nation, The Baffler, The Washington Monthly, Bookforum, Salon, and other publications. In 2014, she was a codirector of “Feminism for What? Equality in the Workplace after Lean In,” a conference sponsored by The Baffler magazine. She lives in Chicago.
Having It All Is Not a Feminist Theory of Change
Tressie McMillan Cottom
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a showstopper of a popular press article for the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The digital version shot across my social media feeds like a canon. The article’s media resonance was not an accident, as Slaughter hints at in her follow-up book, Unfinished Business. According to the introduction of the book, the Atlantic editors chose a title Slaughter now wishes had more nuance. The article’s artwork, featuring an adorable white toddler in an expensive leather attaché case spoke volumes about the article’s intended impact and audience: this was an article aimed at upwardly mobile white middle-class women’s anxieties about precarity, status competition, and reproduction. The article held up its end of that bargain. For several pages, Slaughter’s article described the structural conditions that inhibit white women’s Talented Tenth from realizing their full economic potential. An older generation of highly educated, well-groomed, white feminists had made the mistake of glossing over the social-psychological distress of living in the gender wage gap. They told younger generations of similarly highly educated, well-groomed, mostly white feminists that it was possible to have everything, only “not all at the same time.” Life was about balance and choices and, for these women, especially about realizing the potential of their professional ambitions. Slaughter, herself the cream of a creamy crop of such women, had bumped up against the realities. Even with a supportive husband, a high-status job at an elite university, appointments to the State Department, household help, and supportive friends, Slaughter found it impossible to balance the demands of high achievement with motherhood and marriage. She outlined several well-known facts about the United States’ abysmal showing in comparative global childcare policies. Slaughter’s consequent argument was that these were feminist ideas that even the economy could love because they would make powerful women more productive.
I watched Slaughter’s article became a media tour de force. Every outlet had someone responding to the article. I entered the fray with an essay that still gets a fair amount of traffic, even after three years on the shelf. I called Slaughter’s thesis a version of trickle-down feminism. Much like the economic ideology that generating wealth for a few will trickle down to improve the relative prosperity of the many, trickle-down feminism assumes that better options for elite white women will trickle down to the rest of us. Slaughter says as much in her Atlantic article, arguing that caring about the well-being of elite women means elevating powerful women who will take care of the interests of less powerful women. As someone who clearly remembers Angela Y. Davis’s Women, Race, and Class, I am skeptical that elite white women will do anything different to or for brown women, poor women, black women, queer people, and differently able-bodied women than would elite white men. In fact, Davis argues that given the political economy of mate competition, interpersonal gendered aggression, and greater intimate contact, elite white women may actually be more intimately violent to nonwhite women than elite white men are. The idea that I wouldn’t turn over the theorizing and politicizing of feminist lives to those who want to have it all generated a lot of feedback on my blog. It became such a distraction that I eventually posted a comment conceding that I wouldn’t engage the idea anymore. There was no way forward.
That was the fatigue I brought to Slaughter’s follow-up book. Slaughter should be commended for hearing some of the critiques of her work. She makes it clear at the outset that race, class, and gender mean that mobility is different for different groups of women. She acknowledges the argument from men that they, too, are squeezed in the two-income trap. And she nods to the value of gendered care work as a cause and consequence of gender inequality writ large. These are what op-ed pros call “to be sures.” It is a rhetorical device. “To-be-sures” move one’s argument forward by nominally engaging the most common criticisms. Nominal is the key. Slaughter does nod to these important criticisms, but the nods never go so far as to inform her theory of change. Take, for example, the treatment of race in the book. Slaughter includes a set of data points about race (and class) in her discussion of wage earnings. She rightly points out that black, brown, and poor women do most of the nation’s low-paid service-sector work. She also points out that many of her proposals for narrowing the high-status gender gap might not be feasible for these women. That’s a to-be-sure. But then Slaughter returns to her theory of change, arguing that women are less likely to speak up at work and in class. This gendered deference to masculine authority plagued Slaughter early in her career until her husband taught her to “act like a man”—that is, how to speak up with authority. But, there is ample data that black women don’t have the same problem of speaking up. “Acting like a man” is an unfortunate allusion. What they have is a problem of disproportionate, and racist, approbation for speaking up and the racist-sexist double standard that they should speak up on behalf of the nonblack women who are just too painfully afflicted to do so. If the data on race and class had informed her theory of change, Slaughter might have critiqued the racist, gendered, and classed dimensions of speech and behavior. Data show these social patterns of what is considered acceptable behavior privilege well-to-do white women in mate selection but penalize them at work while also penalizing all other women across the board. Despite minimal engagement with data on race, class, and gender, Slaughter’s revised have-it-all thesis never goes so far as to interrogate the power relations of her positionality. Nor does she allow anything like empirical reality to alter her theory of tipping status competition in favor of highly educated, mostly white women.
There is no more persistent debate in feminist theory and praxis than ones about inclusion. “Big-tent feminism” has been critiqued and, to be fair, has responded, however marginally, to some of the critiques of its elitism, racism, capitalist impulses, and normative social reproduction. All versions of the have-it-all thesis are susceptible to the same critiques because the thesis is just a manifestation of capital’s creative translation of our precarious, post-work political economy. At its heart, for some women to have it all, most women cannot ever have enough. In practice this looks like extracting loyalty from poor women in the service sector while using service-sector labor to negotiate economic elite parity with men in the contracting, competitive good-jobs sector of a global knowledge economy. The veneer of feminist talk is just that – a veneer and just talk. Even in her revision, Slaughter does not present a feminist theory of change. She presents policy prescriptions for coping with precarity and stratification, not challenges to precarity and stratification. The good news is that there are theories of feminist change for this moment. Take the intersectional politics of Black Lives Matter or the interethnic coalition of the Fight for $15 labor movement for a higher minimum wage. Those debates are happening, and we are all better for holding them to the extent that some of us are actually holding them.
At its heart, for some women to have it all, most women cannot ever have enough.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her publications include books, articles and essays on: race/class/gender and academic labor in Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology; higher education stratification in Contexts; and race, class, gender in over a dozen books. She is also the author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges” (New Press, forthcoming) and coeditor of “Digital Sociologies,” with Jessie Daniels and Karen Gregory (Policy Press, forthcoming). She can be found at www.tressiemc.com and @tressiemcphd.
Rethinking the Care Economy
Women’s economic advancement is one the most pressing political issues today. The gender wage gap is cited, including by a White House report released last year, as one of the best indicators for how far women still have to go. Much of the conversation has zeroed in on professional women, perhaps most evidently in Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, who asks women to be more assertive in their career ambitions. Anne-Marie Slaughter offers a refreshing counterargument to Sandberg by suggesting that there are times when we need to lean back and reprioritize family and care work.
Slaughter’s most important contribution is to reclaim care work as valuable. She argues that care is a universal issue that connects people across class and race lines, and that it includes not just child care but care for disabled adults and the elderly. Revaluing care, Slaughter argues, means changing the way we think, transforming our workplaces, and offering both better pay to care workers and government support for family-friendly policies.
Slaughter is right that, in many ways, care unites women—in fact, all Americans, men and women, parents or not—since we all have some care responsibilities. But it is also the big divider, creating inequalities among those who are able to care for their loved ones and those who are not; and those who can hire assistance with care work and those who cannot. Because we have no public care system in the United States, care is privatized. Families’ ability to manage their work and care responsibilities is often dependent on paying someone else to do the work. That includes hiring care workers, cleaners, and landscapers; ordering in meals; or sending laundry out. Market logic suggests that employers will want, or need, to pay as little as possible. And this, of course, is at odds with the interests of workers in this industry. The paid care economy has created a class of vulnerable, superexploited workers, a disproportionate number of whom are women.
While Slaughter acknowledges the plight of low-wage care workers, her concern seems to fade into the background as she lays out her specific policy prescriptions in the last portion of the book. She offers advice about changing our language, shifting the way we think, taking time off, switching jobs, and requesting a flexible schedule. While laudable, these solutions don’t work if you are flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s, working as a live-in domestic, or bagging groceries at the local supermarket.
Slaughter’s solutions are premised on the notion that workers are indispensable, wield some leverage in the workplace, and that they have the power to choose to “ramp up” or “ramp down” their work responsibilities (189). While such an approach may be feasible for women in the professional sector, the hallmark of the modern-day economy is precisely that a growing number of service workers are, as Grace Chang puts it, “disposable.” If a worker is perceived as easily replaceable, then any complaint or out-of-the-ordinary request will likely be grounds for termination.
The problem of women’s economic advancement is largely one of working-class women and occupational segregation. The wage gap is not a product of gender alone, but also, as Slaughter points out, motherhood. But race is also significant. Women and men of color, who are disproportionately poor, find themselves faring much worse than their white counterparts. If we truly want to find solutions to the wage gap and the problem of care, we have to move beyond the male/female dichotomy and examine structural barriers to equality for those at the bottom of the economic spectrum.
Slaughter is right that we need to revalue care. But doing so requires more than a new attitude, cultural change, or individual advocacy by workers. It requires new laws and economic policies such as a federally subsidized day care program, a secure family welfare safety net, and a living wage for all workers. Individual change will help individuals. Systemic change will help everybody.
If we truly want to find solutions to the wage gap and the problem of care, we have to move beyond the male/female dichotomy and examine structural barriers to equality for those at the bottom of the economic spectrum.
Premilla Nadasen is an Associate Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge, 2005) and most recently, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Beacon, 2015). She writes and speaks on issues of race, labor, feminism and social policy and has been engaged with social justice activism for many years.
Caring Without Question
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a courageous essay for The Atlantic that went viral. Titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” it was about Slaughter’s decision to leave her post as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department because family needs called her back to a more flexible teaching position at Princeton University. She’d been surprised when colleagues implied she couldn’t handle motherhood and career and was no longer a “player”; the essay described an internal crisis about what was truly most important versus what she’d been conditioned to think she wanted.
She followed up with a book, Unfinished Business, that also reflects the inspiring evolution of her thinking about the challenges of caregiving and breadwinning in today’s world. From “workplace design to life stages to leadership styles” (xxii), she examines why women are penalized for trying to simultaneously find meaning and advance in their careers and provide care for their families. (Full disclosure—Slaughter is a close colleague, and I spoke with her when she was writing this book and am quoted directly.)
Responding to Sheryl Sandberg’s writing, Slaughter says instead of asking women to adapt to workplace traditions, we should change antiquated hierarchies: “When law firms and corporations hemorrhage talented women who reject lockstep career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantities of hours worked over the quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women” (51). She identifies a deeper design flaw in our economy. Workplaces in the United States are rigid, while flexibility is demanded of workers. The United States is one of the only industrialized countries that doesn’t require a flexibility policy for workers—paid sick leave, paid parental leave, paid time off, or vacation days—while simultaneously expecting flexibility on the part of workers for their employers (i.e., being available 24/7 or on short notice).
There is another design flaw to which she devotes significant attention: our failure to value care. As the director of two initiatives devoted to empowering and valuing domestic workers and caregivers, I was encouraged by how much of the book is devoted to care. Slaughter examines “half-truths” about women, men, and the workplace and identifies cultural shifts that must happen to support caregiving. Critical of our obsession with work, she says we’ve “created a group of people more disengaged from their jobs than in countries with more leisure time” (70). She relays a story about two young, ambitious women who couldn’t find female role models and feared becoming “the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment” (12).
Slaughter urges readers to consider work and care in a nongendered way. Although she enjoyed returning to teaching, which allowed her to regularly make breakfast for her sons, she knows her husband is equally capable and questions that a mother’s care is more essential than a father’s. I would go further to say that we are heading into a demographic moment where more care in general will be essential, on the part of women, men, family caregivers and professional caregivers. The baby boom generation is reaching retirement age at a rate of four million people per year at the same time that advances in healthcare and technology are allowing people to live longer than ever imagined. And the other defining generation of our time, millennials, are beginning to have children. In today’s economy, most adult-age working people are in the workforce. Slaughter notes that 60 percent of women are in the workforce, so at a time when we need more care than ever before, we have fewer people to provide it.
This points to the serious economics at work here. We are counting on the support of a professional caregiving workforce to help meet the exponential growth in need. In fact, as a result of the growing demand for care, home care workers are, for example, the fastest growing occupation in the nation. And caregivers are among the lowest-paid of all American workers. Strengthening the caregiving workforce is essential to securing our future. That’s why our movement is working in states around the country on passing Domestic Workers Bills of Rights and building partnerships to both raise wages for caregivers and ensure access to affordable care for families.
Slaughter addresses the racial dimensions of professional caregiving; caregivers are often immigrants and women of color, and Slaughter says having someone else look after your children has been a benefit of “white women’s feminism” (95) that must be addressed in reworking care economics. When we women advanced in the workplace, she notes, “we left caregiving behind, valuing it less and less as a meaningful and important human endeavor” (79). And I would add here that we have yet to value caregiving as real work, a profession to be proud of.
Slaughter calls for a “great wave” (173) of change for women, men, workplaces, and government. Her recommendations run from workplace policies to government regulations. She even echoes the Caring Across Generations’ call for an “infrastructure of care” (232). She lays out a set of critical policies, such as paid family leave, that have become common sense to most of us even while it remains challenging to imagine achieving them politically, especially federally. Here, I would say that as long as we’re in the realm of political imagination, we should dream big. A new social contract should include universal family care—a program that supports child care, long-term care, and paid family leave for all. A major public investment in the care infrastructure is precisely the type of investment that both creates short-term opportunity and saves money in the long run.
It’s hard to imagine someone who can’t identify with the need for care, or support the role of the caregiver. The universality of the caregiving experience is certainly the basis for the next great wave of change. Let’s bring universal caregiving support to every home in America and bring care to the forefront of what it means to be a citizen.
A new social contract should include universal family care—a program that supports child care, long-term care, and paid family leave for all.
Ai-jen Poo is the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Codirector of the Caring Across Generations campaign. She is a 2014 MacArthur fellow and was named one of the Time 100’s world’s most influential people in 2012. She began organizing immigrant women workers nearly two decades ago. In 2000 she cofounded Domestic Workers United (DWU), the New York organization that spearheaded the successful passage of the state’s historic Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. Together with eleven other organizations, DWU launched the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2007. After noticing an increase in the number of domestic workers originally hired as nannies and housekeepers being asked to provide home care for their employers’ aging relatives, Poo co-led the launch of the Caring Across Generations campaign in 2011 to ensure access to affordable care for the nation’s aging population and access to quality jobs for the caregiving workforce. Poo serves on the Board of Directors of Momsrising, National Jobs with Justice, and Working America. She is a 2013 World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, one of Fortune.com’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, and author of The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. Follow her on Twitter at @aijenpoo.
Look How Far We’ve Come (Not)
Joan C. Williams
It was a different world when I was writing UnBending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do about It in the late 1990s. No gig economy, no legislative gridlock, no African American president. But one thing hasn’t changed: we still define the ideal worker as someone who is always available for work.
How true it is that resolving work-family conflict is America’s Unfinished Business (to quote the title of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book). Women’s disproportionate share of care work remains. So does the ideology that enshrines real men as breadwinners and good mothers as always available to their children. Gender has proven, to coin a phrase, unbending.
This is a battle my generation tried, and failed, to win. It’s such a pleasure to hand over to Anne-Marie Slaughter, Brigid Schulte, Josh Levs, and Heather Boushey the struggle to create workplaces framed around the values people hold in family life. As I look back over twenty years of work in this arena, what I see is that the norm of “work devotion” (to quote Mary Blair-Loy’s wonderful phrase) is more pervasive and more unrepentant today than it was fifteen years ago.
Slaughter’s book provides a panoramic view of work-family conflict, along with some truly useful tools to help individuals address the problem in their own lives. Most notable are the conversation scripts she offers for women to have with their boyfriends (“Your child has a temperature of 101 for the third day in a row”  when both you and your partner have important work obligations. Who stays home?) These scripts are important because most professional-managerial men will tell you they are feminists. When they do, they often are thinking about their beliefs about women—not their conviction that they, as men, should be entitled to have careers unaffected by family responsibilities. Slaughter’s scripts enable young women to tease this out.
Slaughter also highlights our family-hostile public policy and pinpoints with precision what we need to do if we are to join the civilized world. A lot: high-quality affordable child care, paid family leave, the right to request flexible and part-time work, a major investment in early education programs, job protection for pregnant workers, higher wages for paid caregivers, part-time equity, financial supports for single parents, better enforcement of age discrimination laws, and reform of school schedules. I recall, in the late 1990s, when we thought (briefly) we were going to get part-time equity—proportional pay for part-time work—into Democrats’ legislative priorities. Then it sank like a stone; unions were opposed. I soon made a strategic decision not to work on national legislation. I’m very happy to see others do this important work, but I made the right decision for me. I just don’t have the patience or stick-to-it-iveness.
Perhaps most innovative is Slaughter’s insistence that changing conditions for women will require changing conditions for men. I remember during the writing of UnBending Gender, when my husband changed a chapter subheading I had called, “Men Are Entitled to Be Ideal Workers” to “Men Are Entitled—and Required—to Be Ideal Workers.” An important change; Slaughter’s all over it. She gives sustained and useful attention to the need to change the state of play for men. Men need to be free to choose to be caregivers without encountering the flexibility stigma. We need to change the way we talk about fathers, to stop talking as if anything men do for their own children qualifies them for immediate sainthood. Women also need to stop judging men for failing to be ideal workers and to stop gatekeeping: insisting that men help with child care and housework but then undermining men’s ability and confidence to deliver.
Mind you, this is different from the guy who passive-aggressively does a terrible job as a maneuver to escape sharing the care: my own dad, when he reluctantly agreed to do the dishes, proceeded to “leave to soak” pots that had been used to boil frozen peas. A different era, one hopes. But Slaughter is definitely right that feminism needs to place masculinity at the center of a feminist analysis. Masculinity is the mainspring we’ve ignored for too long. Tinkering around the edges leaves domesticity largely intact.
Slaughter also gives a welcome contemporary spin to the now-established trope of workplaces restructured to allow people to live up to their ideals for both work and family. She points out that the gig economy, if its potential is realized and its risk of economic instability is contained, can play a role in giving workers the kind of flexibility so many seek. Slaughter is less successful in addressing the very different problems faced by hourly workers: schedules so short and unstable that many have two part-time jobs whose schedules change every week on three days’ notice. “Flexibility” turns out to have been a poor choice of rhetoric, as employers extol this “just-in-time scheduling” as oh so flexible.
Slaughter’s book is a pleasure to read, as is having her very considerable powers focused on work-family conflict. I fervently hope her focus on building a broad coalition and using a broad range of change levers will help her generation accomplish more than mine did. God knows we need it.
The norm of 'work devotion' ... is more pervasive and more unrepentant today than it was fifteen years ago.
Joan C. Williams has played a central role in reshaping the conversation about women and work over the past quarter-century. Williams is a Distinguished Law Professor and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California, Hastings. Described as having "something approaching rock star status” by The New York Times, she’s authored eight books and over 90 academic articles and book chapters. Her latest book, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (NYU Press, 2014), offers savvy advice to help women navigate office politics and thrive in high-powered careers. You can follow her work on Twitter @JoanCWilliams, on her Huffington Post blog and on her Harvard Business Review blog.
I am deeply honored to have this particular lineup of thinkers and writers commenting on Unfinished Business, all the more as many were important sources and resources while I was writing. But it also has to be said that in many ways I opened the file to read through the commentaries with trepidation. The prospect of being reviewed in Signs is exactly why I didn’t want to write a book on women, work, family, gender, or feminism. As a lifelong academic in another field, I was acutely aware of what I didn’t know about all of these subjects. I knew there were vast literatures out there that I could not possibly conquer. And I knew that it was largely chance that “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” had gone viral when so many talented scholars, journalists, and commentators had been writing the same thing for decades. I thought I was writing a largely personal story for a relatively small audience; I happened to catch a generational wave.
The reason I changed my mind was the tremendous outpouring of reactions from people who wrote me to tell their stories. I realized that I had been given a very large platform, and I thought I could use it to publicize issues and arguments well known to the readers of Signs but far less visible to a mass audience.
Writing such a book, however, was far harder than I thought. Aside from the difficulty of deprogramming and resocializing myself to come round to an argument I never thought I would or indeed could make—that the work of care is every bit as important and valuable as paid work—it also proved challenging to figure out exactly what kind of book it should be.
My editors and I debated back and forth. It certainly couldn’t be a policy book; the whole point was to reach as wide a market as possible, and policy books are for wonks. And in any event, if you want great policy analysis, read Heather Boushey. If you want great economic research, read Nancy Folbre (or Claudia Goldin, Francine Blau or many other great labor economists). If you want great history and cultural analysis, read Stephanie Coontz. If you want to understand the ways in which white suburban feminism has excluded poor women and women of color, read Angela Davis, Patricia Williams, and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. If you want great advocacy, read Ellen Bravo, Ai-jen Poo, and Kimberly Freeman Brown. And if you want to reconceptualize gender, read Joan Williams’s Unbending Gender, a book that I read several times, underlining passages on almost every page.
It had to be a personal book, trying to reach some of the millions who read The Atlantic article and get them to think not about the problem but about a realistic set of solutions. I tell this story of the writing process not to fend off criticism but to try to put the book in context. It is absolutely fair to say, as a number of the commentaries point out, that I devote only one chapter to policy solutions and that I never grapple with the messy and difficult political issues that real change will entail. It is not fair, however, to accuse me of not understanding that we need a systemic solution, as Kathleen Geier suggests at the end of her excellent review. It may only be one chapter, but it is the final chapter, and I argue there, and in speeches everywhere I can, that individual women and businesses cannot make change on their own. We have to stand up as citizens and voters and change the system.
It is also certainly fair to accuse the Atlantic article of being trickle-down feminism, as Tressie McMillan Cottom did, and to observe that many of the specific solutions I offer about how to talk, plan your career, and change your workplace assume that, as Premilla Nadasen points out, “workers are indispensable, wield some leverage in the workplace, and that they have the power to choose to ‘ramp up’ or ‘ramp down’ their work responsibilities.” I also take to heart the powerful intersectional critiques made by Cottom, Nadasen, and Brown. In trying once again to make the personal political I inevitably fall back on my own personal. I cannot authentically do otherwise.
What I can do, however, is to try to use my platform to reframe the entire debate around women and work, work and family, women and men, in a way that will do far more to help women at the bottom than women at the top. The whole point of moving to a focus on care rather than a focus on how many women have broken glass ceilings is that it takes us away from the Fortune 500 and the lists of women presidents, professors, and politicians and focuses instead on how all of us—women and men, rich and poor, minority and majority—are going to care for those we love. Moreover, as Poo argues so powerfully, paid caregivers are overwhelmingly poor women of color. Finally, elevating care—for the old, the young, the sick, and the disabled—as a national political issue is likely to get a much broader political coalition, from the AARP to the NAACP, than focusing only on women.
The critique I take most issue with is Cottom’s claim that I do not have a feminist theory of change. My theory of change in “Why Women Can’t Have It All” was that we needed to advance and elect more women so that these powerful women could then make the changes necessary to help all women. I now see that approach as far too slow and unlikely to succeed precisely because the most powerful women tend to lead such radically different lives from the majority of our sisters.
The theory of change in Unfinished Business is that it is time to stop focusing so much on women as the focus and locus of change. We should be focusing instead on the value of what was traditional women’s work for women and men. We should be expecting the same dual caregiving and breadwinning roles of men that we expect of women. We should be challenging our own notions of masculinity and interrogating the way we—as mothers, wives and partners, sisters, and bosses—confine men in the same narrow gender roles women have struggled so long to escape. When men and women face equal difficulties trying to earn an income and care for loved ones, when they reject traditional gender roles for men as much as for women, when they see that the United States is hobbling its children and failing its seniors because it has no infrastructure of care, then women and men together will push for change: deep, systemic change. That change will not solve our problems with race, poverty, injustice, and inequality of many different kinds. But it will bring about the next great wave of the revolution for gender equality.
The theory of change in Unfinished Business is that it is time to stop focusing so much on women as the focus and locus of change.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is currently the President and CEO of New America, a think tank and civic enterprise with offices in Washington and New York. She is also the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. From 2009–2011 she served as director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. Upon leaving the State Department she received the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, as well as meritorious service awards from USAID and the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002 to 2009 and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School from 1994 to 2002. She has written or edited seven books, including A New World Order (Princton University Press, 2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (Basic, 2007), and has written over 100 scholarly articles. She was the convener and academic cochair, with Professor John Ikenberry, of the Princeton Project on National Security, a multi-year research project aimed at developing a new, bipartisan national security strategy for the United States.